Australian Scholarly Editions Centre Projects (ASEC)

History of the Book in Australia

History of the Book in Australia 1891 – 1945: A National Culture in a Colonised Market

edited by Martyn Lyons and John Arnold
with the assistance of Anette Bremer

A History of the Book in Australia – Martyn Lyons

A History of the Book in Australia, affectionately known as HOBA, aims at a state-of-the-art survey of print culture in three chronological volumes. The volume covering 1891-1945 was launched in Melbourne in November 2001, adorned with over 60 black-and-white illustrations, edited by Martyn Lyons of the UNSW School of History and John Arnold of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. The project began late in 1992, when a motley group of interested people gathered at UNSW. They included historians, specialists in literary and media studies, librarians, bibliographers and professional book trade practitioners ­ a mixture of expertise which makes our enterprise unique. Preparation and research were supported by a substantial ARC grant during 1996-98, and other financial support has been gratefully received in the later stages from the UNSW School of History, the Monash University Publications Fund, the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Australian Pulp and Paper Manufacturers.

The history of the book is an expanding field which intersects with cultural history, literary history and bibliography. Some like to call it simply 'the history of print culture'; others would prefer 'the history of textuality', in order to recognise that 'books' existed for two millenia before the advent of printing, and in order to include all kinds of written communication from cave drawings to computerised text. For us, the history of the book will do. A History of the Book in Australia takes its place among a number of national histories being produced at the moment: the history of the book in Britain, in Wales, in Scotland, in Ireland, in the Netherlands, in Canada, in the USA, in New Zealand, to name a few. The first of all these was the French version, L'Histoire de l'Edition française (1985) which has served as an influential model for the Australian history. Two of the editors of HOBA, Wallace Kirsop and Martyn Lyons, were contributors to the French history, a sign of the pioneering influence of the French historiography of literary production, reading and reception.

What did Australia read, and what does the study of book production and reception tell us about Australian cultural history, from the creative decade of the 1890s up to the Second World War? In this period, Australia was a colonial market dominated by British publishing. But while the market was being inundated with thriller and romance fiction produced overseas, tentative steps were taken to promote a home-grown literary culture and develop a distinctively Australian reading public. A History of the Book in Australia, 1891-1945 considers the development of an Australian reading and writing culture within its important international and imperial contexts.

Consider Clive Bleeck, who worked at the Eveleigh Railway Works in Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the evenings wrote 250 novels or novelettes, westerns, crime thrillers, romances or what he called 'space operas', like his The Invasion of the Insectoids. The Invasion of the Insectoids does not appear in the canon of great Australian literature, and it is safe to assume that it never will. Clive Bleeck was, until very recently, completely unknown. And yet he was one of the most prolific and successful fiction writers Australia has ever produced. He is a healthy antidote for all those who confuse the history of literary production with famous novelists, literary prize-winners and a commemorative plaque at Circular Quay. A History of the Book in Australia is not a history of big-ticket authors. Instead it is a history of the conditions in which they wrote and tried to earn a living, a history of libraries and the bookshops which stocked them, a history of reading practices, a history of publishers and of the printing workers themselves. This brings to mind Bertholt Brecht's poem on history's forgotten labourers, the anonymous multitude of manual workers responsible for erecting the wonders of the world. 'Where', asked Brecht, 'the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?' Who, in other words, made the books that make Australian literature? Our history is therefore concerned with all the processes of book production.

HOBA traces the importance of London publishing houses for Australian authors, and the steady rhythm of British book imports which reached diluvian proportions in this period. Australia was the jewel of the British book export empire; over 25 per cent of British book exports were destined for the Australian market between 1900 and 1939. Meanwhile the desire to preserve the race from contamination by decadent European sources informed the policy of excluding books that were left-wing, obscene or modernistic: a policy which gave Australia arguably the severest censorship regime of any democratic country.

At the end of the Second World War, only about 15 per cent of the books sold in Australia were of Australian origin. The flood of pulp fiction, however, arriving from Britain or the USA is just one side of the story. In spite of Australia's dependent status, a distinctly Australian literary culture was emerging. HOBA traces this in children's literature, and in the success of Angus and Robertson, which established itself in this period as Australia's leading publishing house. The New South Wales Bookstall Company produced an Australian-made version of the dime novel. Literary societies, book prizes, 'Authors' Week' all illustrate a continuing process of re-evaluating Australian creativity.

These twin themes ­ the influence of imperial connections and attempts to shape a national literary culture ­ frame A History of the Book in Australia between 1891 and 1945. This large collaborative work is not an encyclopaedia, but is conceived as a series of essays, each one illuminated by shorter case-studies. This is the most up-to-date summary possible of Australian book and reading history. Today, publishing companies world-wide are losing their autonomy to large corporations for whom selling books is merely a sideline. In retrospect, the decades after 1890, when literacy was universal and the print medium unchallenged, were a golden age in the history of the book. In Australia, however, most of the gold was collected by British publishers.

[A History of the Book in Australia, 1891-1945: A National Culture in a Colonised Market, edited by Martyn Lyons and John Arnold, is published by University of Queensland Press at $50. ISBN 0 7022 3234 3].


In Memory of our colleague, John Curtain


The research and co-ordination needed to produce this volume were made possible by the award of a Large Grant to the HOBA Project by the Australian Research Council. We are especially grateful for the invaluable help of our research assistants: Debra Adelaide, Anette Bremer, Victoria Chance, Lesley Heath, Ian Henderson and Blaise Lyons. We would also like to thank the helpful staff of the State Library of Victoria, the Mitchell Library and the State Library of New South Wales, and the library of David Jones department store in Sydney. Since this book is the fruit of extensive collaboration, the editors would like to thank all the contributors to the volume for their co-operation, as well as all those who have made History of the Book in Australia conferences such lively and interesting occasions over the last few years.

Martyn Lyons & John Arnold